Twin church bombings in Egypt kill more than 40

Bombs tore through two Egyptian churches in different cities as worshippers were marking Palm Sunday, killing at least 43 people and wounding around 100.

Egypt's president calls for 3-month state of emergency after 2 church attacks on Palm Sunday

A woman mourns outside the Mar Girgis church in the Nile Delta town of Tanta, north of Cairo, where an explosion, reportedly carried out by a suicide bomber, killed at least 25 people and wounded 70 others. (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters)

Bombs tore through two Egyptian churches in different cities as worshippers were marking Palm Sunday, killing at least 44 people and wounding around 100.

In the first attack, a bomb exploded at Saint George church in the Nile Delta city of Tanta, killing at least 27 people and wounding over 70, officials said.

People gather outside a church after a bomb attack in the Nile Delta town of Tanta. (Ahmed Hatem/Associated Press)
Later, an explosion hit Saint Mark's Cathedral in the coastal city of Alexandria, the historic seat of Christendom in Egypt, killing at least 17 people and wounding 41, the country's Interior Ministry said.

CCTV images broadcast on Egyptian channels showed a man in a blue pullover approach the main gate to St. Mark's but being turned away and directed toward a metal detector. The man then passes a female police officer chatting to another woman, and enters a metal detector before an explosion engulfs the area.

Pope Tawadros II had held Palm Sunday services at the cathedral, but his aides said he had escaped unharmed. The timing of the attack raised the question of whether the bomber had sought to assassinate the pope, leader of one of the world's oldest Christian communities.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) claimed responsibility for both attacks via its Aamaq news agency, after having recently warned that it would step up attacks on Egypt's Christians.

The group also said two of its fighters were wearing suicide vests and warned of more attacks to come. 

"Crusaders and their apostate allies should know the bill between us and them is very big and they will pay it with rivers of blood from their children, God willing. Wait for us, for we will wait for you," the group said in a statement.

The blasts came at the start of Holy Week leading up to Easter, and just weeks before Pope Francis is due to visit the Arab world's most populous country.

In a speech on state television, Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi declared a three-month state of emergency.

'Everything became dark'

An Egyptian TV station showed footage from inside the church in Tanta, where people gathered around what appeared to be lifeless, bloody bodies covered with papers.

"After the explosion, everything became dark from the smoke," said Edmond Edward, attending services with his brother, Emil, who was wounded and leaned on him for support at a nearby hospital, his head covered in bandages.

Forensics teams collect evidence at the site of the bomb blast at Tanta's Saint George Church, which struck worshippers gathering to celebrate Palm Sunday. (Stringer/AFP/Getty Images)

"There was a clear lapse in security, which must be tightened from now on to save lives," he said. He added that the blast appeared to be centred near the altar and that the priest leading the service, Father Daniel, was wounded.

Across the street, neighbour Susan Mikhail, whose apartment has a clear balcony view of the church and its front yard, said the explosion violently shook her building midmorning, at a time when the church was packed.

"Deacons were the first to run out of the church. Many of them had blood on their white robes," she told The Associated Press. Later, the more seriously wounded started to come out, carried in the arms of survivors and ferried to hospitals in private cars, she said.

Pope Francis condemns blasts

Pope Francis decried the bombings, expressing "deep condolences to my brother, Pope Tawadros II, the Coptic church and all of the dear Egyptian nation." Word of the attacks came as Francis himself was marking Palm Sunday in St. Peter's Square.

Grand Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, head of Egypt's Al-Azhar — the leading centre of learning in Sunni Islam — likewise condemned the attacks, calling them a "despicable terrorist bombing that targeted the lives of innocents."

Both Israel and the Islamic Hamas movement ruling neighbouring Gaza also condemned the bombings.

People react in anger following an explosion at Saint Mark's Cathedral in the coastal city of Alexandria on Sunday. (Hazem Gouda/Associated Press)

The bombings add to fears that extremists who have long been battling security forces in the Sinai Peninsula are shifting their focus to civilians.

An Islamic State affiliate claimed a suicide bombing at a Cairo church in December that killed around 30 people, mostly women, as well as a string of killings in the restive northern Sinai that caused hundreds of Christians to flee to safer areas of the country.

The group recently released a video vowing to step up attacks against Christians, who it describes as "infidels" empowering the West against Muslims.

Egypt has struggled to combat a wave of Islamic militancy since the 2013 military overthrow of an elected Islamist president.

The Sinai-based ISIS affiliate has mainly attacked police and soldiers, but has also claimed bombings that killed civilians, including the downing of a Russian passenger plane over the Sinai in 2015, which killed all 224 people on board and devastated Egypt's tourism industry.

Egypt's Copts are one of the oldest Christian communities in the Middle East. They have long complained of discrimination and that the government does not do enough to protect them.

Egyptian media had previously reported that the church in Tanta had been targeted in the past, with a bomb defused there in late March.

The Copts were largely supportive of the military overthrow of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, and incurred the wrath of many Islamists, who attacked churches and other Christian institutions after his ouster.

With files from Reuters